Thursday, October 27, 2022

Chico Hamilton Quintet - The Robert Gordon/Mosaic Records Notes [From the Archives with Revisions]

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Robert “Bob” Gordon is an authority on what he prefers to label “Jazz on the West Coast.” Bob is also a friend of mine and an all-around good guy.

Not surprisingly, then, when Michael Cuscuna, the owner-operator of Mosaic Records needed a professional to write the notes for the insert booklet to the Mosaic boxed set The Complete Pacific Jazz Recordings of the Chico Hamilton Quintet [MD6-175] he turned to Bob.

And when we asked Bob if we could use said Mosaic insert booklet notes for a feature on these pages, he said: “Of course.”

Did I say that Bob Gordon is a nice guy? Michael Cuscuna is one, too.

© -  Mosaic Records/Robert Gordon;  copyright protected, all rights reserved, used with permission.

“The Chico Hamilton Quintet was a unique jazz group: unique in its instrumentation, its concentration on musical forms usually thought to be more "classical" than jazz, and its dependence on the spontaneous interplay between the musicians for its most successful works. Formed in 1955, when jazz musicians on both coasts exhibited a penchant for experimenting with exotic instrumentation and musical forms, the quintet survived as a working unit until 1960, outlasting many of its erstwhile competitors and contributing a respectable body of recordings to the jazz tradition, many of which remain fresh and listenable to this day. To be sure, there were failures as well. At its worst, the music produced by the group could be pretentious, and as British jazz writer Alun Morgan has noted, at times it "veered dangerously close to kitsch." But at its best, the quintet could produce gems like BLUE SANDS, which still has the power to enthrall a listener nearly a half century later.

The quintet's instrumentation was the first thing likely to catch the attention of someone unfamiliar with the group. Nobody could miss the cello, or the fact that the reed player was as likely to be playing flute or clarinet as saxophone. Because of this, the quintet and the music it produced were often referred to using the term "chamber jazz," and although this was often meant as an epithet, the term is both accurate and (perhaps unwittingly) complimentary. The "chamber" aspects of the group had more to do with dynamics and subtle shadings of tonal colors than with the unlikely instrumentation. By playing in a softer range, the quintet could often force jazz audiences to abandon conversations and listen intently to the music. This was surely one of the lessons that Chico learned during his tenure with the Gerry Mulligan Quartet.

As for "classical" influences on the group's music, these too came about simply and naturally through the group's approach. Many of the quintet's performances saw Chico supplying color or accents with his drum set, rather than the straight "ching-ching-a-ching" rhythms that audiences might expect. Of course Fred Katz, the quintet's original cellist, was a classically-trained musician, and indeed the presence of that instrument itself demanded a somewhat structured approach to performances, whether they were written or spontaneously improvised. But for the most part there was no attempt to deliberately "introduce" classical methods or approaches into the quintet's performances.

It may seem that "spontaneous interplay between the musicians" is hardly unique to jazz performances. After all, that's how jazz began; it's a working definition of New Orleans-style jazz. But by the 1950s, jazz performances had largely settled into the "theme, string of solos, theme and out" format, and group interplay was often limited to that between the rhythm section and the current soloist. The Chico Hamilton Quintet could play in that tradition, of course, but many of their tunes such as the aforementioned BLUE SANDS and FREE FORM (both from their first album) relied largely or entirely on group improvisation. Between the INTUITION session of Lennie Tristano in 1949 and the advent of the Ornette Coleman Quartet in 1960, the quintet was one of the few working groups to make such attempts an integral and continuing part of its repertoire.

As to the formation of the Chico Hamilton Quintet, it came about through a combination of planning and serendipitous coincidences that is unusual even for jazz groups. To begin at the beginning, Chico was born in Los Angeles on September 21, 1921. His given name was Foreststorn, although he was apparently dubbed "Chico" at an early age. He began lessons on clarinet, but soon switched to drums. He was fortunate to have traveled in fast musical company almost from the start, especially during his years at Thomas Jefferson High School in L.A.

"Jefferson High had quite an alumni," Chico would later tell Down Beat writer John Tynan. "Marshall Royal and his brother, Ernie, went there. We had sort of an unofficial school band then, with Dexter Gordon, Charlie Mingus, Ernie Royal, Buddy Collette, myself and several others." During army service in World War II, Chico studied drums with Jo Jones, but upon discharge he found that jazz styles had changed radically.

"When I came out of the service in '46,I discovered that there had been a complete switch in drumming. Oh, the basic foundation of keeping time remained, but otherwise the whole conception of drumming had changed. It threw me." Despite being invited to record with Lester Young (on Aladdin), he remained bothered by the new thing. "I still couldn't quite make up my mind as to what was happening in drumming.

Then, a few months later I heard with considerable shock and even more pleasure the work of Art Blakey. Art explained to me how drums were now being used, and he demonstrated. I made the switch fast."

There followed tours with Count Basie (for an ailing Jo Jones), Jimmy Mundy and Charlie Barnet, as well as experience with the "Godfather" of the L. A. jazz scene, Gerald Wilson.

"By 1947, however," Chico remembered, "I felt like trying another aspect of drumming, that of accompanist. When Ella Fitzgerald opened at Billy Berg's here, I went in with her." He was later to work with Billie Holiday, Billy Eskstine and Harry Belafonte, but the single most important gig of this period was backing Lena Home. For seven years he worked "more or less regularly" with Lena, and the discipline he learned on the job helped to hone his drumming skills and, unknowingly, prepare him for his next big break.

Chico would later tell John Tynan, "This work is a most exacting type of playing, where you have to have at all times complete control, as you never know what the singer is going to do from one moment to the next. Not only does this keep you sharp, but you acquire what seems to be an almost uncanny sense of time and develop subtleties of technique that big band work will never allow."

In the summer of 1952, Chico was one of a revolving group of musicians who played the Monday (off-) night gig at The Haig, a small club on L.A.'s Wilshire Boulevard. When young Gerry Mulligan, another of the musicians, decided to form his own group, Chico was the immediate choice as percussionist. Chico's unique concept of drumming had much to do with the success of the original Gerry Mulligan Quartet. By doing away with a piano, Gerry had forced the weight of stating the group's harmonic foundations upon the bassist, and this in turn called for a drummer of subtlety; one who could drive the group at a low volume and not overpower the bassist. Chico's style of sensitive accompaniment was just what was called for.

Hamilton left the Mulligan group in 1953 to once again go with Lena Home, who could offer a more attractive salary to the drummer. (By now Chico had the responsibilities of a wife and two children.) Later that same year, however, came an opportunity that would lead directly to the formation of the Chico Hamilton Quintet. No doubt in part as an acknowledgment by Pacific Jazz owner Richard Bock of Chico's contribution to the formation and success of the Mulligan Quartet, Bock offered Hamilton his own recording opportunity. Chico formed a trio for the occasion, with his section-mate in the Lena Home orchestra, bassist George Duvivier, and the young (and at the time unknown) guitarist Howard Roberts. Recorded in December of 1953, the trio album was an instant success for Pacific Jazz, garnering a five-star review in Down Beat and instantly launching the jazz career of Howard Roberts. The album's popularity also got Chico to thinking about forming his own group.

"At the outset," Chico would later recall, "I didn't quite know what I wanted. I only knew I wanted something new. A different and, if possible, exciting sound."

It was at this point that serendipity came into play.

In 1954 Chico played an extended engagement with Lena Home at the Capitol Theater in New York City. One of his fellow musicians was cellist Fred Katz. On one production number, a Phil Moore arrangement of FRANKIE AND JOHNNY, Katz was featured on a solo cadenza that ended in a particularly high note. Katz would hit the note "bang on," which would elicit a sigh from Chico. (Lena herself went out of her way to compliment Katz on the solo at the end-of-run cast party.) Later that year, Katz moved to the Los Angeles area, where he landed a job as pianist accompanying singer Jana Mason. A drummer was also needed, and Katz quickly recommended Hamilton for the group.

By this time (early 1955) Chico's thoughts were often focused on the group he still intended to form, and during breaks on the Jana Mason gig, he and Katz would often discuss his plans for a band. At first the plans ran in the direction of a quartet — simply adding a reedman to the guitar trio that had proved so successful on his recording. (In this regard, his thoughts quite naturally ran to his old high school companion Buddy Collette, who had mastered just about every woodwind instrument.) Still, a quartet would not quite fit Chico's idea of something "new, different and exciting." He considered adding a French horn to the group and approached John Graas, but Graas would soon be leaving L.A. with the Liberace Show. Finally, during one of their backstage conversations, Fred Katz asked Hamilton, "Why not a cello?" Chico's response was, "Why not?" At this point the quintet began to become a reality.

George Duvivier, it turned out, was content to stay with Lena Home, so Chico searched out Carson Smith, with whom he had worked in the Gerry Mulligan Quartet. Howard Roberts had more than enough studio work coming his way and was also unavailable, but once again serendipity came into play. During a phone conversation, John Graas mentioned to Chico that a young guitarist just in from Cleveland was rehearsing and staying with him while searching for a gig. Chico said "Put him on," and young Jim Hall thus landed the guitar chair.

The group started rehearsing at Chico's house. At the first rehearsal they had only one chart, a Fred Katz arrangement of MY FUNNY VALENTINE, but from the start the members jelled. Soon after, Chico approached Harry Rubin, the owner of a number of clubs in the greater Los Angeles area. Rubin invited the new group to open at The Strollers, a club he had recently bought in nearby Long Beach, 20 miles south of L.A. The job offer came so suddenly the musicians were caught off guard. Buddy Collette, who was working with "Scatman" Cruthers, immediately gave two-week's notice but would be unavailable for the first week of the job, so tenor saxophonist Bob Hardaway, filled in. Hardaway brought several arrangements along and the group relied mainly on those for the first few weeks of the gig, sketching in the cello parts where necessary.

The musicians worked hard to achieve an integrated sound. Several times a week they'd drive down to the club in the afternoon and rehearse for a couple of hours, then take a dinner break before the nine o'clock job. Carson Smith was working a day job with Crown Records — a budget operation that sold albums to discount outlets — at the time and remembers a tiring period when he would work mornings, rehearse in the afternoon and play the gig that evening.

Business was slow at first, but it began to pick up when disc jockey Sleepy Stein began a series of live broadcasts from the club for radio station KFOX. It was now summer time, and southern Californians were out on the road trying to escape the heat. "People were driving to the beach cities in the car," Buddy remembers, "and they'd hear this [broadcast] from The Strollers, and the cars began to zip around. That did it!" What had begun as a two-week gig stretched into eight months and, especially after the first Pacific Jazz album was released, the Chico Hamilton Quintet began to acquire national fame.

Unfortunately, the original edition of the quintet did not last much longer than the gig at The Strollers. When the group went east early in 1956, Buddy Collette stayed behind. Buddy had secured a position with Jerry Fielding's orchestra on the Groucho Marx radio and television shows, and wasn't about to let that plum go. Allen Eager worked his way back to the Apple with the band, playing a two-week's engagement in Phoenix, and Jerome Richardson filled the chair for an engagement at Basin Street East in NYC. (The quintet wound up playing opposite the Clifford Brown-Max Roach group, and surely a more stark contrast between approaches would be hard to imagine. Chico remembers that the East Coast-West Coast opposition often found in the copy of jazz writers in those days largely stemmed from — or at least was exacerbated by — the dichotomy represented by that engagement.)

Buddy was able to rejoin the group briefly for the band's appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival later that summer, and the reunion produced one of the quintet's high spots. As Buddy would later recount the occasion: "We were next to the last group on. Duke Ellington followed us, and everybody was so worn out at Newport, because after three days of trumpets and tenors, and tenors and trumpets and trombones, most groups began to sound alike. So finally we get on and it's a bad spot, and we play our stuff and everybody... [claps desultorily]...and people begin to leave. We were really bombing! So Chico says, 'What're we gonna do?' And I say, 'Well, we better try BLUE SANDS, that's all we got.' .. .so we go into it, and they don't move at all; even the smoke seemed to stop out there! It was just like they were silhouettes. And we played for about 10 minutes, giving it our best shot. And at the end, as we'd do, we just tapered off, and everything just stopped. And for eight or 10 seconds nobody moved, and then they jumped up and screamed; they went wild, and it went on and on.. .Later, as we were moving offstage and Duke's band was setting up, we passed Duke on the stairs and he smiled and said, “Well, you sure made it hot for me.' "

(Duke, of course, rose to the occasion and capped off his segment by unleashing Paul Gonsalves on the legendary performance of DIMINUENDO AND CRESCENDO IN BLUE familiar to legions of fans. Jim Hall remembers listening from the wings and in later years thinking in wonder, "I was there!")

In the fall of 1956 Jim Hall left to join the Jimmy Giuffre Trio, but permanent replacements for Collette and Hall arrived in the persons of Paul Horn and John Pisano. The group probably achieved the height of its popularity in the next few years. In 1957 they appeared in the movie THE SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS, playing themselves (with the exception of John Pisano, whose "character" was played by one of the movie's leads, Martin Milner). Elmer Bernstein, who wrote the soundtrack, borrowed several tunes from the quintet's book to use as themes for the score, including most notably Fred Katz's GOODBYE BABY and THE SAGE. The experience also resulted in a Decca recording of tunes used in the movie by the quintet. One whole side of the album was devoted to an extended group improvisation in concerto form.

Another album recorded in 1957 featured the group playing incognito, but the music was instantly recognizable to fans of the quintet. This was on the original WORD JAZZ album of Ken Nordine's, recorded for the Dot label. The band was listed as "The Fred Katz Group," and all of the musicians were given credit under their own names except for the drummer, who was listed as one "Forest Horn." (Another giveaway was Chico's scatting on the performance of MY BABY.)

Dick Bock also took advantage of the quintet's popularity to record the group extensively for his Pacific Jazz label, and these performances can be heard in the present collection. No doubt the most important offerings on this set, however, are several previously unissued performances by the group which are made available here for the first time. These include six performances by the original quintet recorded at The Strollers, as well as an additional five by the second edition of the group recorded in concert at NYC's Town Hall. It's a shame these tapes have languished in the Pacific Jazz vaults for so many years, but their availability on this set more than makes up for the wait.

The Chico Hamilton Quintet — in its original format of reeds, guitar and cello — lasted until 1960. Eric Dolphy, heard here all too briefly on three numbers, replaced Paul Horn, and can be seen and heard with the group in the documentary JAZZ ON A SUMMER'S DAY, filmed at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival. Later that same year Dennis Budimir and Wyatt Ruther replaced John Pisano and Hal Gaylor on guitar and bass, and this edition of the group recorded albums for labels other than Pacific Jazz. When Charles Lloyd took over on reeds in 1960 the guitar was replaced by a piano, the first of many permutations that would transform the group into a different organization altogether, one with an entirely different focus. Times change and jazz refuses to stand still. But if the later group was better suited to the ambiance of the '60s, the original quintet was an ideal representative of its time and place: the Los Angeles jazz scene of the 1950s. And in this Mosaic set we can once again hear the group in the heady days when the musicians first began to realize their potential."

The following video features the group at the Newport Jazz Festival in the documentary JAZZ ON A SUMMER'S Day:

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